Norman's lucky escape from the Weeping Woman A conduit of fine taste to the ordinary man

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold

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I am a great lover of art. Regular as clockwork, I nip in each year to one gallery or another for quite a few minutes to check that nothing too awful is happening in the world of fine art.

Like many devotees of the canvas I am a great one for the telling detail, often gazing for a good few seconds at those areas of a painting others might overlook. I learnt the trick from my old friend and quaffing partner Lord St John of Norman Fawsley, who once pointed out that if one stares for long enough at Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp one can just make out, near the centre of the canvas, a rather pasty-faced corpse. "A Liberal Democrat, I dare say!" quipped Fawsley, burying his gig- gles in the light-mauve pocket-handkerchief that billowed from his upper left-hand jacket pocket.

One picks up an awful lot of unexpected information from close scrutiny of a painting; often one's preconceptions of a particular artist entirely change as a result. Take Picasso, for instance. Generally speaking, I have little time for this bald-headed Lothario, though the fame of his Weeping Woman proves, I suppose, that two heads are better than one (I jest!). Frankly, the Weeping Woman is not what one might call "my type of girl". She strikes me as the sort to make a mountain out of a molehill. Indeed, St John has pointed out that if one studies the background of the canvas with an acute eye one can just about make out an electric toaster with smoke pouring out of it. There we have it! The Weeping Woman is making all that song-and-dance over an accident with her long-suffering husband's morning toast!

On this evidence, the nation must thank goodness that Norman did not, in his younger days, turn a glad eye to the Weeping Woman and decide to make her his wife. She would not, I think, have proved a suitable spouse for a young and ambitious Conservative candidate in the late 1950s. Indeed, I doubt she would have passed the vetting procedure. "Mrs St John Stevas" the chairman of the selection committee might well have asked her, "would you be prepared to attend constituency coffee mornings?" Whereupon she would have burst into the proverbial floods of tears, forfeiting all goodwill.

"Your Majesty, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, pray be standing for Lord Norman and Lady Weeping Woman of St John Fawsley!" the toastmaster would now be expected to say on state occasions. In would march poor Norman, this most unsuitable of escorts clinging in manic-depressive fashion to his left arm, sobbing her way to the top table. Let's face it, whatever her qualities of self-expression (dread word!) she would have proved a most unsuitable escort for Norman and might well have placed his future political career in the direst jeopardy.

Happily, sans Weeping Woman, Norman's career has flourished, so that he is now the proud chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission, of which I myself have the honour to be Entertainments Secretary (Beverages and Liqueurs). But we in Britain are, I regret to say, only too ready to build up our heroes before pulling them down. This week, it has been Lord St Fawsley of John Norman's turn to be singled out for this treatment. "Inconsistent!" was one of the kinder epithets placed at St John's door by a damning report from the chip-on-shoulder brigade. I am only relieved that the report made no criticism of the inconsistent nature of Fawsley's shirt-tie-and- hankie combinations, for that would have cut us all to the very quick.

The report attacked us for costing the taxpayer pounds 800,000 a year. Yet this seems a trifling expense for ascertaining the very latest in good taste over an agreeable luncheon and dispatching the news with due haste to the man on the Clapham Omnibus before the arrival of coffee and mints. Occasionally, we even get "out and about"; for instance, before we condemned the vulgar millennium ferris wheel, we donned our chains of office to take a ride on a similar exhibit on Clacton Pier, Lord Norman in front in his "Kiss-Me-Quick" hat, my own good self in the middle clutching fast to Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and Quinlan Terry in blazer taking up the rear. Sadly, as we reached the top, St John of Fawsley went dreadfully white, warbled "I feel a little queasy", and vomited o'er the side on to ordinary members of the public 200 feet below. Was ever an aesthetic judgement delivered more decisively? Its consistency, too, was a thing to behold!

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